Ariya Jutanugarn's rapid rise comes with new mental approach

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Heading into the start of the Evian Championship, Ariya Jutanugarn is No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings -- a year ago she was No. 57.

Turnarounds happen all the time in golf. Players work their way up from mini-tours to the big time, raise their profile at an elite level once they get there and strive to improve year to year -- like a company's bottom line, that's the idea. According to one of the sport's old axioms, you're either getting better or you're getting worse.

Improvement doesn't come at the same pace for everyone, of course. To cite a recent and obvious example, Dustin Johnson took multiple major-championship bruisings before figuring out how to win one, and that he did so at this year's U.S. Open in the maelstrom of a weird, unprecedented rules situation at Oakmont made it all the more memorable.

When it comes to divining how to succeed, however, Johnson's season pales in comparison to that of Ariya Jutanugarn. Rarely does a golfer make the strides that Jutanugarn has in 2016. Heading into the start of the Evian Championship on Thursday morning in France, the 20-year-old from Bangkok is No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings -- a year ago she was No. 57.

Jutanugarn has won five tournaments in 2016, highlighted by the Ricoh Women's British Open. Her first three victories -- not only of the season but also of her career -- were in consecutive starts this spring, something never before accomplished in the LPGA. The success has come on the heels of a disappointing 2015 season in which Jutanugarn missed 10 consecutive cuts as well as a devastating defeat at the 2016 ANA Inspiration in which she had a two-stroke lead with three holes to play but bogeyed in and lost to Lydia Ko.

It was the kind of failure that could haunt a young golfer for a long time, especially because Jutanugarn was still looking for her first LPGA victory and wasn't far removed from an extended period of futility. Instead, it led to consultation with performance coaches Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson of Vision54.

In just her fourth start after the ANA, Jutanugarn won the Yokohama Tire Classic. She has been a different type of player ever since connecting with Marriott and Nilsson -- seeing the game as a joy not a chore, avoiding a tendency to criticize herself, not being bugged by less-than-perfect shots, letting her talent flourish.

"They have taught me how to be happy before I hit the shot," Jutanugarn said earlier this season.

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Ariya Jutanugarn learned to smile despite her loss at the ANA Inspiration, and the change helped her win her first major at the Ricoh Women's British Open.

A smile before settling in to the ball is sign of Jutanugarn's new approach, but there is more to it than that.

"She had not been aware enough and trained enough in how to manage herself on the course, knowing that all of us are always variable and never consistent," Nilsson said in an email to espnW, speaking for herself and Marriott, who collaborate in their coaching. "Her missing 10 cuts had many reasons -- coming back from injury, fear with her driver, not trained in the 'human skills' of the game, not knowing what to focus on beyond outcome and technique. She is very quick. She is very honest about herself. She keeps it simple."

Jutanugarn's skill has been evident for nearly a decade, since she qualified to play in the 2007 Honda LPGA Thailand as an 11-year-old. She won the 2011 U.S. Girls' Junior and was a two-time American Junior Golf Association Player of the Year. As a 17-year-old pro without exempt status in 2013, Jutanugarn won nearly half a million dollars in a handful of LPGA events before injuring her shoulder.

"Lynn and I can never predict how good players can be, since there are too many factors in play, but Ariya's natural gift to hit a golf ball and touch on and around the greens is more than spectacular," Nilsson said. "She is now combining that with the other essential skills to play and compete in golf. Of course with that, she does feel more confident in herself and her abilities."

In embracing Vision54's holistic approach to golf performance, Jutanugarn has evolved a great deal since she wobbled to the clubhouse at the ANA.

She has learned to be OK with great, good and good-enough shots while competing and not being super critical and annoyed at any shot less than perfection. It's possible to be focused on being happy on the course, being focused on playing each shot and enjoying the round and not forcing outcomes.
Performance coach Pia Nilsson on Ariya Jutanugarn

"She has learned to be OK with great, good and good-enough shots while competing and not being super critical and annoyed at any shot less than perfection," Nilsson said. "It's possible to be focused on being happy on the course, being focused on playing each shot and enjoying the round and not forcing outcomes. We have supported Ariya to find a way to actually enjoy hitting golf shots and have a more productive way of reacting to her shots. All performance and outcomes improves when we put our energy on things under our control. Ariya had not been clear on that."

The coaches have also encouraged Jutanugarn to have an efficient preshot routine, and they say that is something that can help other golfers.

"So many today make their routines way too long and complicated," Nilsson said. "It doesn't only slow down the game but also it takes too much energy to do it for a whole round/tournament. Make up your mind, get present, connect to the target and go."

This is not the first time Marriott and Nilsson have seen an LPGA player make a drastic turnaround after she began working with them. A decade ago, Suzann Pettersen started winning regularly and rocketed up the world rankings, going from No. 52 to No. 2 in 2007 after getting support from the Vision54 founders in December 2006.

"Yes, Ariya's turnaround is amazing," said Nilsson, "and it just shows how much of her abilities had not been accessible to her."

Having taken her game to new heights, Jutanugarn's challenge -- like that of other players who become among the best in the world -- not only comes with what happens on the course. The spotlight at the top can be intense and broad.

"We are in touch with Ariya a lot and we are supporting her to get used to her new status as a top player and find her flow and how to manage everything around her," Nilsson said. "She seems very pleased with it and also realizes there are so much more going on around her now with the media, requests and other people's opinions. She is still quite an introvert and a little shy, so it's just not playing great golf she needs to pay attention to."

Whatever happens from this point, it has been a season Jutanugarn -- as well as Marriott and Nilsson -- won't forget.

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